“I myself used to make food and tea for the soldiers and they came and sat in the shade of our olive tree when the sun beat down on them … My mother told me: ‘The tree is your responsibility. I fed you from it and raised you on it. Even in times of war, we lived from its oil when nobody could find food.’ Now there’s nothing I can do but hold the tree and kiss it and say, ‘Forgive me, mom, what can I do.’” – Hajja Zaynab
Between July 2013 and August 2015, Egyptian authorities demolished at least 3,255 residential, commercial, administrative, and community buildings in the Sinai Peninsula along the border with the Gaza Strip, forcibly evicting thousands of people. Extended families who had lived side by side for decades found themselves dispersed, forced to abandon the multi-story houses they had built next to their relatives and passed down through generations.
Some families became homeless and lived in tents or sheds on open land or in informal settlements. The Egyptian authorities razed around 685 hectares of cultivated farmland, depriving families of food and livelihood and stripping most of the border of its traditional olive, date and citrus groves. The evictions scattered families among the Sinai’s towns and villages and in some cases as far as Cairo and the Nile Delta.
The Egyptian government has indicated that these evictions could continue.
The Egyptian army began demolishing buildings along the border in July 2013 as part of a reinvigorated but long-considered plan to establish a “buffer zone” with the Gaza Strip. These demolitions rapidly accelerated after October 24, 2014, when the Sinai-based armed group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, or Supporters of Jerusalem, carried out an unprecedented attack on an army checkpoint in North Sinai governorate, reportedly killing 28 soldiers.
The following month, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis pledged allegiance to the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and changed its name to Sinai Province.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who had taken office in June 2014 after orchestrating the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsy the year before, said in a speech on national television the day after the attack that Egypt was fighting a war “for its existence.” He declared a three-month state of emergency in most of North Sinai and convened the National Defense Council and Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which agreed on a plan to establish a “secure zone” along the Gaza border.
Five days after the attack, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb issued a decree ordering the “isolation” and “evacuation” of 79 square kilometers stretching along the entire Gaza border and extending between five and seven kilometers into the Sinai. The buffer zone encompassed all of Rafah, a town of some 78,000 people that lies directly on the border, as well as significant agricultural land around the town.
Egyptian authorities justified the buffer zone as a way to defeat the insurgency by shutting down the smuggling tunnels that they said allowed fighters and weapons to pass from Gaza to the Sinai. Since 2007, Gaza, which is governed by the Islamist Palestinian movement Hamas, has been under a strict Israeli blockade. For most of this period, Egypt has cooperated in the blockade by severely restricting the flow of people and goods between Gaza and the Sinai. Tunnels have served as a key supply line between the two sides.
Egyptian officials described the buffer zone as a way to clear the border area for military operations and eliminate this supply line. A statement on the Defense Ministry’s website described the zone as a way to “finally eliminate the problem” of tunnels, “one of the main sources” for armed groups to enter Sinai and supply insurgents with “arms and ammunition.”
Maj. Gen. Abd al-Fattah Harhour, the governor of North Sinai, said the decree was intended “to defend Egypt from terrorism.” One advisor to the military’s Commanders and Staff College told a newspaper that the buffer zone would have two benefits: putting the zone under military court jurisdiction and clearing it of civilians, so that it would “be regarded as an open theater.”
Though the renewed threat of violence from insurgent groups in 2014 provided a useful pretext, the Egyptian government had for years taken steps to prepare a buffer zone. In response to pressure from Israel and the United States to more effectively seal the border, former President Hosni Mubarak had ordered a 150-meter-wide strip of land cleared in 2007, but protests forced the government to abandon the plan before it began.
Two years later, Mubarak’s government tried and failed to build an 18-meter-deep steel wall under the ground along the border.
According to Sinai activists, the government rekindled the idea of a buffer zone in 2012, under President Morsy, when al-Sisi—then defense minister—banned private property ownership on land within five kilometers of Gaza. Al-Sisi declared the land a “strategic area of military importance,” a designation that, under Egyptian law, made it easier for the military to seize property.
The October 2014 buffer zone decree issued by Prime Minister Mehleb, which contained a map, delineated an eviction area that matched al-Sisi’s decree from two years prior.
In the wake of the decree, Egyptian officials gave contradictory statements about the scope of the coming evictions. Though newspapers had published the decree and 79-square-kilometer map in its entirety, Governor Harhour claimed the day before the decree that the military would only clear an area 500 meters from the border.
On November 17, 2014, the military declared that the buffer zone would be expanded to one kilometer. In January 2015, Harhour told a reporter that the buffer zone would likely mean evicting the entire town of Rafah. In August, Harhour confirmed that a further expansion of the buffer zone, to 1.5 kilometers, would encompass about 1,200 more homes.
Furthermore, a Human Rights Watch analysis of satellite imagery showed that the Egyptian authorities actually began large-scale home demolitions on the border more than a year before the October 2014 buffer zone decree was issued and that these demolitions occurred far outside the initial 500-meter strip described in public by officials. These satellite images showed that home demolitions began after the military, led by al-Sisi, ousted Morsy on July 3, 2013.
The authorities destroyed at least 540 buildings along the border in the 16 months between Morsy’s ouster and the October 2014 decree, including 50 that lay more than a kilometer from the border, Human Rights Watch found. Yet on the day of the decree, Governor Harhour claimed that only 122 homes had been destroyed. After the decree, the Egyptian military demolished at least 2,715 more buildings.
About 3,200 families have lost their homes, according to the government.
Illegal DemolitionsHuman Rights Watch spoke with journalists and activists in the Sinai and 11 families evicted from the buffer zone and analyzed a detailed time series of over 50 commercial satellite images recorded over Rafah between March 11, 2013 and August 15, 2015. Human Rights Watch determined that the large-scale destruction of at least 3,255 buildings in Rafah to counter the threat of smuggling tunnels was likely disproportionate and did not meet Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law or the laws of war.
Since August 14, 2013, the day Egyptian security forces violently dispersed a mass sit-in protesting Morsy’s removal, killing more than 817 people in one day, Egypt has faced an increasingly dangerous insurgency mounted by an array of groups throughout the country but particularly intense in North Sinai.
Little is known about the Sinai insurgents. In November 2014, Western officials told the New York Times that they estimated that the main insurgent group, Sinai Province—then still known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis—might boast as little as a few hundred fighters or as many as “a few thousand.” The Sinai Province group rarely provides any details about itself. The group has never named a leader nor described its organization, and it has publicly identified fewer than two dozen fighters by name.
Though the group launched sporadic raids and rocket attacks against Israel in the years preceding Morsy’s removal and the mass killing of his supporters, by September 2013, it had turned its attention toward al-Sisi’s government and the military, promising “revenge for Muslims against whoever helped in killing or assaulting them.” The following December, it declared the Egyptian armed forces “unbelievers” who “fight against all who call for the application of Islamic law.”
Since 2013, the insurgents have proven capable of sustaining an increasingly sophisticated campaign against Egyptian military and security forces in North Sinai while also carrying out attacks on security forces and buildings in Cairo, the Western Desert region and elsewhere.
In addition to the October 2014 attack, the group launched large, coordinated assaults on government positions in North Sinai in January 2015 and July 2015, likely killing more than 100 Egyptian soldiers in total, according to local media outlets. The July 1, 2015, attack on army and police positions in the town of Sheikh Zuweid in North Sinai may have been the largest insurgent attack in Egypt’s modern history and marked the first time that insurgents in Sinai succeeded in temporarily seizing populated territory.
Only attacks by Egyptian air force F-16 fighter jets managed to drive the fighters out of Sheikh Zuweid after 12 hours of combat. The Sinai Province group has also used sophisticated guided missiles to destroy tanks, shoot down at least one Egyptian military helicopter and severely damage at least one Egyptian navy vessel.
More than 3,600 people, including civilians, security forces and alleged insurgents, have reportedly died in North Sinai between July 2013 and July 2015, according to media reports and government statements aggregated by the Washington, DC-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Roughly 2,650 people, about 73 percent of those who died, have reportedly been killed since the first major attack in October 2014.
This ongoing fighting, primarily between the Egyptian military and the Sinai Province group, may amount to a non-international armed conflict, meaning that the conduct of both sides would be subject to international humanitarian law, also called the laws of war.
Under the laws of war, the Egyptian armed forces may close tunnels that are being used to send arms or materiel to the armed groups it is fighting, respond to attacks on its forces, and take preventive measures to avoid further attacks. But such measures are strictly regulated by the provisions of international humanitarian law, which require all parties to distinguish between civilians and combatants.
Egypt’s military can attack or destroy civilian buildings only when they become military objectives and are making an “effective contribution” to military action. The laws of war also prohibit the forced displacement of civilians “unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand.”
Human Rights Watch found that the large-scale destruction of homes and other buildings in Rafah did not meet the requirement under the laws of war that Egypt’s army target only specific military objectives. The demolitions made no distinction between tunnels and civilian homes, and less-destructive methods could have effectively restricted, and in fact had reportedly restricted, tunnel smuggling.
For example, in July 2013, when the military first began home demolitions on the Gaza border, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Occupied Palestinian Territory estimated that existing Egyptian efforts to close the tunnels through demolition or flooding had been successful, eliminating perhaps all but 10.
Furthermore, Egypt likely possessed the capability to detect and eliminate specific tunnels without resorting to the arbitrary destruction of a large buffer zone. In 2008 and 2009, according to media reports and the US Defense Department, the US Army Corps of Engineers trained Egyptian troops to use advanced technological equipment that measures ground fluctuations to indicate tunnel digging. In August 2013, the US Defense Department awarded the defense company Raytheon a $9.9 million contract to continue research and development in Egypt on its version of this technology, which is known as a laser radar vibration sensor.
Though the Sinai-Gaza tunnels may qualify as lawful military objectives in some cases, Human Rights Watch also found it unclear to what extent they make an effective contribution to the Sinai Province group’s military capability or to the overall insurgency.
According to both media reports and government statements, most of the heavy weapons in use in the Sinai, including heavy machine guns, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-tank missiles, have likely been smuggled from Libya and bought, stockpiled and sold within the Sinai. Israeli and US officials have expressed concern about weapons smuggling from the Sinai to Gaza, but rarely the reverse. Indeed, the buffer zone appears to be as important to Israel’s security as Egypt’s.
“When we take security measures in the Sinai, those measures confirm our sovereignty over the Sinai, which is part and parcel of Egyptian territory. We will never allow anyone to launch attacks from our territory against neighbors or against Israel,” al-Sisi said in a televised November 2014 interview. “The buffer zone should have been established for years already … We took this decision in consultation with the local population. Meetings have been organized to compensate them of course, and to rebuild the city of Rafah to make it more pleasant to live in.”
Whether or not the fighting in North Sinai has reached the level of a non-international armed conflict, international human rights law continues to apply and bind the Egyptian authorities. The demolition campaign since July 2013 has violated these laws, specifically the right to housing laid out in United Nations and African conventions to which Egypt is a party.
This right provides specific protections during evictions, such as: genuine consultation with those being evicted; adequate and reasonable notice; information on the eviction and future use of the land; legal remedies; and legal aid. International law prohibits "forced evictions," defined as the permanent or temporary removal of individuals, families or communities against their will from their homes or land, without access to appropriate forms of legal or other protection.
Egypt is also obliged to protect the right to property, as set out in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, to which it is a party. This includes recognizing individuals’ and groups’ property rights over homes and land they have traditionally occupied, whether or not they have written documentation. Evictions should be a last resort and accompanied with fair compensation.
Residents told Human Rights Watch that the Egyptian army provided no written warning of the impending evictions and that many residents heard about the coming demolitions from army patrols, neighbors or media outlets. These residents, often told to pack up their lives and leave within 48 hours, were sometimes made to wait for weeks for the demolition to take place and were forced to live in houses they had hurriedly emptied, amid mostly abandoned neighborhoods where shops had closed and government-supplied water and electricity had been shut off.
The government offered families a small and inadequate one-time payment of 900 Egyptian pounds (US $118) to cover three months of rent as they searched for a new home for themselves and their relatives.
The Egyptian government offered compensation to residents for their homes, but most of the families said that the compensation was not enough to buy property that would equal their previous standard of living and that the process was opaque and lacked any mechanism for objection. Residents were coerced to sign a form that falsely stated they had voluntarily given their property to the state and pledged to not build again within the buffer zone.
Rafah city council employees would not give families their compensation checks if they did not sign the form. The government did not offer any compensation for agricultural land, even land which families farmed or rented to others, considering it “empty.”
The government did not provide compensation to anyone who owned property where a tunnel or tunnel entrance was allegedly found.
The Egyptian government did not appear to have a plan to ensure that the evictions did not interrupt children’s education. The army destroyed at least six schools in the buffer zone, and families told Human Rights Watch that they struggled to place their children in new schools outside the buffer zone. One family said that they had not been able to find a new school; the others said that they had placed their children in schools with the help of family friends in the government.
The Rafah evictions have taken place amid an ongoing counterinsurgency campaign by the Egyptian government involving widespread arrests and attacks on alleged insurgent positions in the area. Since the October 2014 insurgent attack on the army checkpoint, much of North Sinai has been under a curfew and state of emergency.
One resident told Human Rights Watch that the military used dogs to intimidate homeowners during the eviction process, and in one early 2014 case their use was captured on video footage posted to YouTube. Another video provided to Human Rights Watch, filmed in the first week of November 2014, showed a US-made Egyptian army M60 main battle tank firing at a building on the border, apparently in order to demolish it.
In an October 10, 2014, incident widely circulated after also being posted to YouTube, and which Human Rights Watch verified, army soldiers near the Gura checkpoint southwest of Rafah severely beat two Sinai men, one of them apparently already injured and wearing blood-stained clothes, before pushing them into an unmarked room where at least three other people were being held. Civilians have also been intimidated and attacked by insurgents. The Sinai Province group has destroyed the property of alleged government collaborators and killed and on occasion beheaded others.
Few voices in Egypt criticized the evictions, and many Egyptian media outlets called for the armed forces to take harsh measures in North Sinai. After the October 2014 attack, current and former Egyptian security officials appeared on private television news shows saying that “there is no need for [an] understanding” with North Sinai residents and that “these so-called innocent residents are the ones harboring and protecting terrorists.”
The National Council for Human Rights, in its annual report, said that the evictions were legal and the compensation fair. The government in almost all cases denied journalists and human rights groups access to North Sinai. The head of news at Egypt’s state broadcasting authority said the authority’s journalists could not broadcast events in the Sinai without instructions and permission from the armed forces.
The evictions have received virtually no international scrutiny or condemnation. The United States reacted to them with approval. On October 30, 2014, a State Department spokesperson said, referring to the Egyptian government, “we understand the threat that they are facing from the Sinai” and that “Egypt has the right to take steps to maintain their own security.”
Neither Egypt’s Gulf allies nor sympathetic nations in the European Union, including Germany, France and the United Kingdom, have condemned the evictions.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Egyptian government to halt its forced evictions along the Gaza border and study the possibility of destroying tunnels using less destructive means. Human Rights Watch calls on the United States, which supplies much of the military equipment used by Egypt, to ensure that it can undertake robust human rights vetting for the use of all US military assistance and to not supply Egypt with military aid that risks being used in the commission of serious human rights abuses.
Human Rights Watch calls on the United Nations special rapporteur on housing to request an urgent visit to Egypt and on the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a joint resolution expressing concern about the human rights situation in Egypt.